by Melissa Donovan
The Kawasaki Motor Corp.’s Lincoln, NE facility is the central production plant for the U.S. Out of the 2.1 million square foot space, over 2,400 plant workers—including 75 engineers—are involved in projects ranging from Kawasaki recreational vehicles and other transportation solutions to cargo doors for Boeing 777X aircrafts.
Above: To prototype vehicles like the 2020 MULE PRO-FXT, the Kawasaki engineering team traditionally builds a frame from straight raw tubing by shaping it with a CNC tube bender to form the frame’s design.
With such a variety of product manufactured under one roof, a number of different tools and parts are required. Traditionally, Kawasaki outsourced these requests, but it recently decided to take on additive manufacturing (AM) by integrating a BigRep STUDIO three-dimensional (3D) printer in house.
Already In the Know
The manufacturer was already familiar with AM, as its research and development (R&D) team employed a printer. Leveraging that team’s knowledge on what to expect, the engineering group was able to make an informed decision when it came to choosing the right printer.
“Our R&D department was outsourcing and using their own 3D printers to produce prototype tooling and mockup parts for over six years. Kawasaki was aware of the technological advances taken in the AM world and had a few projects it outsourced. It wasn’t until about two years ago we started to prove 3D printing’s usefulness and justify the purchase for our engineering department,” explains Ross Makovicka, production engineer, Kawasaki Lincoln.
When looking for a 3D printer, the team required a device that could support large singular parts such as fixtures or jigs, or large batches of parts such as pieces of a whole assembly. “Our goals included allowing engineers to create prototypes and reduce scrap costs, keeping up-to-date with current technology to help retain new and experienced engineers, and giving some control to the office by filling lead times, while also expressing creativity,” shares Makovicka.
Welcoming 3D In House
In April 2019, a BigRep STUDIO 3D printer was purchased and installed in Kawasaki’s Lincoln production plant.
The material extrusion device was recently introduced to the public as a new and improved model, referred to as the BigRep STUDIO G2. Similar to its predecessor, it is designed for manufacturing abrasive and engineering-grade materials using a fast-heating print bed and a temperature controlled filament chamber. With a build volume of 500×1,000×500 millimeters (mm) it enables continuous printing of large format objects. Its unique dual extender is equipped with two 0.6 mm specialized nozzles.
Kawasaki chose this specific printer for a number of reasons, including its large build volume and industrial grade components. A bonus was that the print bed is raised off the ground, which aids in ergonomics. Having two separate nozzles was also important, so that multi-colored parts could be created or intricate support material added without modifying the printer.
“Having two nozzles means that we can set up a single print file containing numerous jobs and two different filament types/colors. This greatly improves its simplicity and reduces the time necessary to monitor the print. The reliability of the BigRep STUDIO means we can have a single print containing two numerous jobs and two filaments over the weekend or overnight without any issues,” shares Makovicka.
The printer is powered by Simplify3D software. Its user interface is easy to use, and the engineers who work with it are able to adapt to it quickly. Simplify3D includes everything needed to work with a 3D printer. Model setup and plating, slicing and print file creation, pre-print simulations, customizable support structures, mesh analysis and repair, and machine control and monitoring. It supports multiple 3D printer models/brands.
When it comes to filament, Kawasaki commonly uses PLA—sourced from BigRep in large, eight kilogram spools. “It is easy to work with and durable enough for fixtures and light use tooling,” notes Makovicka. A high level of strength, it extrudes well between 190 and 225 degrees Celsius. PLA features low moisture absorption, low warping, and reduced environmental impact.
Other filaments in the rotation are BigRep’s Pro HT for applications where higher temperatures are required and TPU to create shock-absorbent qualities. BigRep’s Pro HT is a general-use bio-performance material offering increased temperature resistance as well as minimal warping and shrinking. BigRep TPU is a flexible material with high-impact strength, offering UV and chemical resistance.
Examples of Efficiency
Kawasaki’s success with 3D printing is illustrated in a number of examples. It’s used AM for the manufacture of recreational vehicles, parts for Boeing, and to upkeep its own factory equipment.
CNC Tube Bending
During new vehicle prototyping, the engineering team traditionally builds a frame from straight raw tubing by shaping it with a CNC tube bender to form the frame’s design.
An involved undertaking, normally Kawasaki outsourced the bender’s profile collets—parts that help to properly orient a tube throughout the bender process. The tooling was manufactured with heavy steel and had long lead times as well as a high cost. Sometimes the quotes were upwards of $500.
Once the BigRep STUDIO was in place, the engineering team decided to bring the manufacturing of the tube bending collets in house using BigRep PLA filament. The 5.5.×5.5×95 mm collets only cost $17 each and are printed in two hours using AM.
According to Makovicka, this is a savings of around 85 percent of expected outsourcing costs in the tube bending area. “What is attractive about AM is its ability to quickly create a part that can be held and tested to validate a design before spending large sums of money,” he notes.
Compared to the previously used steel product, the PLA-based tools “function for a good while. Once they wear to a certain point they mesh with the mating surface nicely, so it’s kind of work treated on its own,” comments Makovicka.
Kawasaki began manufacturing aerospace parts for Boeing in the U.S. in 2017. Aerospace parts come with high qualification standards, taking a long time for new parts and tooling to be approved and processed. This problem is bypassed thanks to the BigRep STUDIO printer.
While manufacturing Boeing 777X cargo doors, the Kawasaki aerospace team needed a new tool, but dreaded the wait time associated with the stringent approval process. Instead, it designed a mockup part of a placeholder to align tooling and printed it with the BigRep STUDIO—enabling the continuation of work without interruption.
Makovicka approved the designed piece fairly quickly, examining it and determining it was easily printable. Five hours later it was ready for use.
The Kawasaki Lincoln facility is home to four major manufacturing departments, each employ state-of-the-art automation equipment to alleviate employee strain and workload.
When a laser engraver was purchased to etch vehicle identification numbers into recreational vehicle frames, the engraving unit was shipped with an imperfect part. “I noticed the clamping system on the engraving head didn’t really fit very well,” says Scott Gordon, chief engineer, Kawasaki.
Waiting for the supplier to come out and fix the machine or have to send away for a new part—or worse a whole new device—would affect production. Gordon contacted the laser engraving company for 3D models of the part, and based on the plans was able to modify it to fit the faulty clamping system. This was printed with BigRep STUDIO in house and installed in the laser engraver the next day.
75 engineers in one facility with access to one 3D printer could be a logistical nightmare. A process was enacted early on to ensure smooth organization and prioritization of projects, as well as provide insight into analytics like costs and usage.
“We needed to make sure that everybody had access to the machine and could learn to use it if they wanted, but we also needed a way to create product flow rather than people just hoping it wasn’t in use or having it idle unnecessarily when parts were needed,” notes Makovicka.
As the dedicated operator of the BigRep STUDIO, Makovicka manages print requests from the engineering team with a spreadsheet accessible on Kawasaki Lincoln’s internal server. The job sheet allows engineers to assign a job number to their project with specifications like filament type or resolution. The team attaches their design files and specifies whether they’d like to operate the printer themselves. If they prefer not to, Makovicka runs the device and then sends the parts to the appropriate department when completed.
A combination of solid organizational efforts and the efficiency of the BigRep STUDIO led Kawasaki to print more than one hundred parts in six months. When it originally made plans to implement the AM device, the company estimated the printer would handle 200 to 250 jobs a year.
While there is the possibility of adding another 3D printer to the production facility in the future, Makovicka admits the BigRep STUDIO is not being used to its full potential and his goal is to prove to the plant that is has true benefit. There are plans to continue working on incorporating AM into a wider range of applications efficiently.
When asked to summarize how 3D printing is influencing manufacturing, he believes it offers benefits three-fold—creativity, costs, and lead times. “Engineers express their creativity and get more adventurous with what they believe possible. It helps reduce costs and improve the validation process by inexpensively creating either a feels-like or functions-like unit to be physically held and evaluated. Lead times and temporary tooling are easier to manage, improving production downtime for new model creation or day-to-day repairs,” concludes Makovicka. IPM
Sep2020, Industrial Print Magazine